- Anote's Ark by Matthieu Rytz
It makes for a pathetic and rather contemptible commentary on the immoral nature of global capitalism that among those fighting at the forefront of the Anthropocene are the leaders of states whose economies contributed nothing at all to its causes. For example, Sir Michael Somare, during his fourth term as the prime minister of Papua New Guinea (2002–2011), called for the establishment of a Coalition for Rainforest Nations in 2005 and gave speeches at the United Nations urging that developed countries take responsibility for greenhouse gases and help small island states adapt. In [End Page 243] 2010, he was also one of the first signatories of the Oslo partnership that established the UN Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (redd+) to begin global cooperation to safeguard tropical forests. Matthieu Rytz, a photographer and visual anthropologist, has now worked with Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati (2003–2015), on an absorbing, if flawed, documentary, which focuses on local and international dimensions of President Tong's work on behalf of his imperiled people and their island's eroded, vulnerable beaches.
The movie consists of two interrelated narratives. One introduces daily life on Kiribati. We see appealing images of the islands from above—their neighborhoods, lengthy coastlines, and modest land area—while we hear hymns. We see Kiribati outriggers sail across the surrounding turquoise seas as children play in the shallows. Boys, meanwhile, climb coconut palms. Women put toddlers to sleep. People attend Christmas services where, dressed in traditional ornaments, community members, clergy included, dance and sing. The moral heroes of this narrative are an ordinary young married couple, Ato and Sermary, who are seen in the ocean pulling in a drift net, after which Sermary cleans and cooks the catch.
But the Anthropocene intrudes. Young men repair a seawall whose sandbags were swept into the water. Sermary talks about how waves broke over her house during a previous storm. The house had electricity at that time so, when she gathered up her kids to take them to safety, she worried that the water might electrocute them. Troubled about what the next storm event and the next high tide might do, she petitions President Tong to help the family leave Kiribati. As noted in the credits at the end of the movie, Sermary shares the same surname and is possibly a kinsman of the president, but the movie does not specify what their relationship is. Neighbors, however, do suspect that Sermary is trying to finagle free airplane tickets to New Zealand from him.
President Tong is the moral hero of the second narrative. Before we are introduced to him, we hear him in voice-overs expressing anxiety about Kiribati's future. The first time we actually see him, he is riding a boat in the Arctic, watching huge glaciers break apart and churn in the massive ice flow. "Climate change," he observes, "is not a political issue. It is an issue of survival." Tong's itinerary makes up quite a bit of this second narrative. The president attends meetings of the UN Human Rights Council, which he challenges to "make a contribution to get some real action on the ground so we can give some sense of comfort … and security to our people." He goes to the Vatican and meets the pope. He attends the World Humanitarian Summit in Sydney. He is interviewed by Al Jazeera tv and the Australian Broadcasting Company. Perhaps the culmination of his travels occurs at the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement, where President Obama pledges funds to vulnerable populations to help them rebuild after climate-related disasters. Afterward, an interviewer asks President Tong what Kiribati will gain from the Paris Agreement, since [End Page 244] its emissions targets will have no effect on the global climate until after Kiribati is long gone. "What is going to happen to us," he proclaims, "is going to be the fate of the rest of the world." Desperate, Tong goes to Tokyo, where...